12 January 2004

Ullswater: Foxes and Herdwick’s.

Foxes of the Lake District were the sworn enemies of the local farmers. Besides taking poultry, rabbits and small game, lamb was a favourite on a fox's menu in spring and summer particularly. In winter on the fells large adult dog foxes would under the right conditions tackle and take fully grown sheep.

Thus grew in times past the beginning of culling of foxes by farmers with their dogs, banding together and hunting foxes. As time progressed the modern day hunt was formed with a pack of hounds and employing a huntsman with his assistant whipper-in.
Hunting in the Lake District was a serious business and was done mainly on foot. No horses here, or dressing up in the approved riding gear, jumping fences and hedges in a social atmosphere it was a serious business to keep the foxes' at a manageable level. It was hard work on "shanks' pony" following the Huntsman as he follows the fast moving hounds in the chase. Knowing the hunting area intimately he would take short cuts to where he knew the fox was most likely to go to ground.

The Huntsman wore a red coat and black peaked hat similar to a riding hat as his badge of office. Everyone else dressed in warm wet weather gear and stout boots. The Master of the hunt if present wore his badge of office, which was said to be a red waistcoat. The fell hunts I attended, I did not remember seeing the Master so dressed.

I followed now and then as a boy, the Ullswater Pack when we lived at Sharrow Bay in the 1940s and later when we moved to Kidside, Milnthorpe near Kendal the Coniston Pack. The Ullswater Pack huntsman was Joe Wear at the time and I was a friend of his son, Mason Wear, we went to school together in Penrith. We did not follow the hunt together we lived to far apart. He at the Patterdale end of Lake Ullswater and we of course, at Sharrow Bay.

The huntsman prior to Joe Were was Joe Bowman, if my memory serves me right, a huntsman at least as famous as John Peel; some say more so, in the Lake District that is. There was a song wrote of Joe Bowman, the huntsman. I must try to find it and add it to this piece. I remember only a few odd lines now.

At later at Kidside in the 1950s when I was on leave I would occasionally follow the Coniston Pack. In the evening after the hunt was over it was usual to have a few drinks in the local pub where tales of old were told and local hunting songs were sung. I still see in my minds eye, the small bar room with squashed in bodies, everyone with a smile of enjoyment, we all bellowing out the words of the old hunting songs.

It is said that the Lakeland fox was hunted almost to extinction and to maintain the sporting side of fox hunting the southern fox was introduced. Whether this is true or not I do not know.

To me although it is a beautiful, intelligent animal the fox if not hunted would reach plague proportions and do great damage to the livelihood of the local people of the Lake District.

Some say fox hunting is barbaric; others say it is an old traditional sport. I don't really agree with either. I believe in live and let live but if something becomes a pest it must be either eliminated or held to manageable levels.

How do you control the fox in the rugged Lakeland terrain other than by hunting? No practical solution has been found yet.

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